Greenwashing Natural Gas: A Bridge Fuel Or Wrong Turn?

Aditya Kondalamahanty
September 18, 2020

From natural gas and to freedom gas, the greenwashing campaign for methane gas began decades ago.

Just as the world started closing down due to the pandemic in February, India’s oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan announced that India is looking to invest $60 billion in natural gas. Terming it a “transition fuel”,Pradhan’s plan has set a target of servicing atleast 15% of India’s energy demand from natural gas (Currently it is around 6%).

India is not alone in its obsession to turn into a gas-based economy. Under pressure to meet emission guidelines under the Paris accord, Australia’s government has just proposed a “gas-led” recovery from Covid-led economic hard stop.

Given that the world is fighting off one climate disaster after another, activist shareholders are dumping their fossil fuel investments and regulators are factoring in climate risk into their policies; how is another fossil fuel gaining such popularity?

Short answer: Green washing.

Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2)when combusted in a new coal plant. It combustion also emits fewer small particulate matter, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide. So at face value it is cleaner than other fossil fuels. However oil companies market it as a “clean fuel” – a descriptor with so many caveats that you would do very well to read the fine print.  

For one, long before its rise to fame, natural gas was known as methane gas. The oil and gas industry’s greenwashing campaign for methane gas began decades ago when it rebranded the product as “natural gas”—a hugely successful strategy.

This issue of nomenclature is important as it allows Big Oil to gloss over the entire life –cycle of natural gas. While natural gas burns cleaner than other petroleum-derived fuels at the point of combustion transporting and processing natural gas leaks methane, directly into the atmosphere.

Methane makes up about 85 to 95 percent of natural gas that is piped and stored and it is 34 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.

From the drilling site to the stove top, travelling through thousands of miles of pipes, compressors and tanks, methane escapes into the atmosphere at various points along the supply chain. Some of these are unintentional and happen due to aging pipes and leaks and are called “fugitive emissions”.  

Currently the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 1.4 percent of all the methane drilled out from the earth is lost due to leakages.

This number is however highly disputed. An independent study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which involved more than 140 researchers from over 40 institutions and 50 natural gas companies, showed that the the methane leak rate is 2.3 percent.

At about 3% leakage rate the greenhouse impact of methane would equal that coal. However this threshold may not even matter as by 2018, In the US, the gas industry as a whole was responsible for more emissions than coal last year for the first time, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

A bridge to nowhere

Proponents of natural gas argue that it can be a valuable “bridge fuel” or “transition fuel” as the world shifts from dirty energy to renewable. That decarbonisation agenda-setters of the world would do well to focus on fuels that “burn clean” until renewable technology matures. That fossil fuel companies are truly focusing on “net-zero emissions by 2050”.

However natural gas can also end up being the detour from investments into renewable and clean energy. As climate change is no longer waiting patiently for humanity to clean up its act, this is bridge looks more like a wrong turn.

Meanwhile the US (with its penchant for freedom and the largest exporter of natural gas) decided in 2019 that natural gas should now be called freedom gas. (No we are not joking)